If you took a poll of all 30 National Hockey League teams, you would be hard-pressed to find one willing to play without all their top guns at this time of year. The Penguins are no exception.
When the Penguins hit the ice at 1:06 p.m. for their Saturday afternoon matinee with the Philadelphia Flyers, star center Evgeni Malkin
was not among the 18 skaters dressed for the fifth time in the past six games. As if that didn’t make things hard enough on the Penguins, all-star defenseman Sergei Gonchar sat out his second straight game due to illness.
But with points at a premium and teams jockeying for playoff positioning, injuries cannot be an excuse this time of year. Other players must step up and fill the void to keep teams such as the Penguins perched atop the Atlantic Division.
Saturday afternoon saw several players step to the plate and deliver for the Penguins, who clinched their fourth-straight playoff berth with a 4-1 defeat of the Philadelphia Flyers at Mellon Arena, and also moved two points ahead of the New Jersey Devils, who play later tonight, in the race for the division title.
“You always want the X (for clinching a playoff berth) by your name,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “We want to finish as high as we can. When you have the X by your name you know you are going to the postseason. … We didn’t mention that we clinched a playoff spot, but it’s a big deal to wake up in the morning and know we have an X by our name.”
With the Penguins missing a combined 34 goals from their lineup with Malkin and Gonchar out, Pittsburgh received offensive contributions from secondary scorers Chris Kunitz
, Pascal Dupuis
, Matt Cooke
and Ruslan Fedotenko, as well as another perfect effort from their penalty killing unit.
“I think our penalty kill was strong throughout the game, which was a key to keeping the game at 2-1,” Bylsma said. “They got a couple power plays that would have changed the game but the penalty kill was good. … Getting goals from Cooke and Fedotenko. I would say Dupuis but he is making it too regular to be a surprise with going to the net and getting goals there.”
Guys up front just have to step up their game with Geno out and play better. We know we have to make a big push over these final seven games to get that No. 2 seed (in the East). - Chris Kunitz
“Gonch plays a lot of minutes on the power play but Tanger (Kris Letang
) did a great job stepping up there,” winger Chris Kunitz
said. “Guys up front just have to step up their game with Geno out and play better. We know we have to make a big push over these final seven games to get that No. 2 seed (in the East).”
Even more impressive to Bylsma than who scored was how the Penguins got their goals. All four were the types of tallies the Penguins are going to need to be picking up in the playoffs – second-chance opportunities from right around the opposing cage.
“All of our goals were a result of going to the net, crashing there and getting second chances and creating that by going to the net,” Bylsma said. “That’s what you have to do. We played in the offensive zone for long periods, it wasn’t perfect and we can get better. You saw periods of hockey where we did that and we’re rewarded for it.”
As well as the Penguins played in this game, and nether the score nor their 31-27 shots advantage tells the whole story, Philadelphia was able to gain a 1-0 lead on a fluke goal just 1:02 into the game by Arron Asham
However Pittsburgh never flinched, and eventually evened the score with less than minute remaining before the first intermission - and one second after a James van Riemsdyk penalty expired - thanks to a Kunitz tally.
The Penguins winger was stationed in the right circle when the rebound of a Jordan Leopold shot came his way. Kunitz knocked the puck down with his stick and promptly threw a shot into the top shelf of the cage for his 13th goal of the season.
“That was a bad break there on their goal, but we knew we could come back,” Kunitz said. “It was nice to capitalize at the end of a power play and get us back even. After that we were able to force them to turn pucks over and we went to the net and capitalized on rebounds.”
Dupuis gave the Penguins the lead for good, picking up his fifth game-winning goal in the process, 6:03 into the second period. Sidney Crosby
, who continued his torching of the Flyers with three more assists today, danced through three Philadelphia defenders before getting good wood on a shot from between the circle. Flyers netminder Johan Backlund, making his NHL debut, stopped Crosby’s shot, but had trouble corralling the rebound, which allowed Dupuis to sneak behind a Flyers defenseman to throw the puck into an open cage.
“It’s one of those things where you have to have guys step up when other players are out of the lineup,” Dupuis said. “Sid threw a shot to the net there and I was just going for the rebound. It’s great to do that when we have a couple guys down.”
Cooke gave the Penguins some much-needed breathing room at 7:32 of the third period after Fedotenko did a great job stealing the puck away at the front of the net.
Crosby threw a centering pass to the crease from behind the net and Fedotenko made sure the rubber ended up on his blade as he won the battle for positioning with Ian Laperriere. Fedotenko sent a backhand pass to Cooke at the edge of the paint, and he tapped home his 14th goal of the season.
“Everybody did their job and a little bit extra today,” Fedotenko. “We did a lot mixing the lines today and different things (to offset the injuries). We did a really good job.”
Fedotenko finished out the scoring by taking a Crosby pass in the slot and tossing a shot behind Brian Boucher, who relieved an injured Backland at the outset of the third period.
“I feel like we responded really well today and got the win,” Fedotenko said. “I feel like we are just looking one game at a time. We dressed and prepared for Philly and now we can look forward (Sunday's) game.”